By Liz Blocker
In the thick heat of a June afternoon I walked out my front door and down the stairs and nearly stepped on a dead baby bird.
I saw it just in time, and stopped, my foot hovering over the tiny, flattened thing. The sun baked my neck and shoulders; sweat dripped from my scalp onto my forehead. Careful, slow, I withdrew my foot back to the bottom step. I wanted nothing more than to escape into the cool air-conditioning of my car. But still, there was this thing, this dead thing.
The baby bird was small, barely the size of my palm, and half-naked. That was my second thought: why is it naked? Its pink skin was patchy: in some places downy with new feathers, in others, bare and bald and shiny, like the scar from a terrible burn. I wanted to cover it up, dress it, shroud it in feathers. But feathers would have meant it was ready to fledge, and then it wouldn’t have been there at all. It lay on its stomach on the sidewalk, neck weirdly twisted, wings stretched out across the ground as if, at the moment it fell from the nest, instinct took over and it made a first, impossible attempt to fly.
I should move it, I thought; I can’t just leave it here. But no, I’m skipping ahead. That was my third thought.
First there was the rush of nausea and the burn of bile in my throat, and then I thought, the universe has one sick fucking sense of humor.
My wife and I had been watching the robins for months. First, in early April, there were just the two adult birds. They were nearly identical, with glossy grey backs and warm orange breasts. The female was slightly smaller, and slightly duller than the male – or at least, that’s what we guessed, standing at our bedroom window the day they first arrived, watching our guests busy themselves on our front porch. The world was still cold and gray, and the arrival of two robins, family-bent, seemed like the first true sign of spring.
“Which one is the female?” I asked, craning my neck to look over my wife’s shoulder.
“They look the same. Maybe the smaller one?” she answered after a moment.
“Maybe they’re both male,” I said.
“Gay robins, hon?” Jen turned her head back to look at me, smiling, teasing.
“Maybe not,” I laughed, and slid my arms around her waist. “Maybe she’ll get pregnant the same time we do,” I whispered. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of the robins: they, at least, didn’t have to find a donor and make ovulation charts and, eventually, enlist the help of doctors to start a family. With a sigh, I laid my hand over my wife’s flat belly.
She leaned back into me, warm and soft against my chest. “Maybe they will,” she whispered.
“So – we let them stay?” I phrased it as a question, even though it wasn’t, really.
In the silence that followed, we considered the birds, framed against the backdrop of a clear spring sky. Our front porch was small and already crowded; seated on the two wide chairs, we’d be less than a few feet away from the new family.
“We can’t sit out there with them,” Jen said. Again, it wasn’t a question.
“No. They might attack us,” I said, drawing on something I thought I had seen or read, sometime, somewhere.
I nodded. “Birds can be very protective of their young,” I said, and my wife accepted my guess as fact. I was the resident animal nerd, the only member of the household who considered watching an episode of National Geographic the perfect way to unwind.
The problem was that we loved that porch. When the weather was mild enough, we ate breakfast and dinner there in relative solitude, relaxing as the sun rose or set over the city, and watching below us as our neighbors walked with strollers or dogs into the large, quiet park behind our house. In Boston, the months of warm weather were brief and altogether precious. We rarely missed a chance to sit outside.
I looked at the robins on the porch; they were busy. One – the male? – brought long strands of thread, straw, and grass, while the other bobbed and pecked and wove everything into a surprisingly solid little bowl.
“We’ll eat inside,” my wife said, and I agreed. We both knew there was no way we’d kick them out now.
If I leave it, there will be flies. I stood above the little corpse, long past my first and second and fifth and tenth thoughts. The seconds ticked by, measured in drops of sweat. I had to move the dead nestling; I couldn’t move it; it had to be moved.
I’d tried to do something, three or four thoughts ago. I’d stepped with care onto the sidewalk next to it, found a stick – there was no chance I could touch it with my bare hands – and bent down to prod it. Where to, I didn’t know. My plan hadn’t progressed beyond the stick. But as my face drew closer I could see the wrinkles on its snapped neck, the dull yellow glaze of its eyes. I reared up and dropped the stick, and stood still again.
Who could I ask? Our dead-end street was quiet and still in the suffocating heat of the afternoon. No dog-walkers or babies to be seen. The only person nearby was my wife, and she was out of the question.
My wife, I thought. Shit.
Late April, and the robins were well-established on our porch. We knew there must be eggs, because Birdy – the female robin, whom Jen named in a burst of creativity – spent all day and night sitting on the nest. Mr. Bird – the male, whom I named in an equally creative burst – took over for small amounts of time, most likely when his mate was off finding dinner for herself, but he was always nearby. (It wasn’t until later that I realized we had effectively named our pair of robins the Birds, which made the female’s name Birdy Bird, poor creature. I tried to rectify this, but it was too late. The names, as they have a habit of doing, stuck.)
Weeks passed. We checked the nest obsessively, emailing and texting each other updates:
“Birdy isn’t on the nest! How long can she leave the eggs? I hope they’re OK.”
“Mr. Bird just took over. Birdy is hungry.”
“Nothing yet. I’ll keep watching.”
We knew we were too involved, but we were helpless to stop ourselves. We watched the robins as if they were our own personal Downton Abbey: desperate for updates, obsessed with the plot twists, hanging on every hint and gesture for a sign of life. It was thus far much more productive and successful than our own year-long attempts at nest-building.
One morning in early May, on my way out to my car, I saw a speck of blue on the ground. I was running late, but the color was so bright that I stooped down for a closer look. It was an egg: tiny, speckled blue, and shattered. The shards were bright against the dull pavement; the yellow yolk was brighter. The colors were beautiful and vibrant, so different from the brown and pale green of early spring. In a twist of irony, those broken pieces seemed more alive than anything else on the street.
Later that evening, we found two more eggs, scattered in pieces along the concrete. The nest was empty, the robins gone. We stood at our window, staring out at the porch as the sky dimmed towards night.
After a long time, Jen asked, “Do you think they’ll try again?”
I shook my head, and closed my eyes, and turned away.
It was no more than a few weeks later that I glanced out the bedroom window and saw Birdy standing on the nest. She fluffed her feathers, shuffled her feet, and settled down on three round blue eggs with a little shimmy of satisfaction.
I pumped my fist in the air, and I swear Birdy winked her round black eye back at me. “Us too, Birdy,” I whispered, and grinned.
The Birds were back, and everyone was pregnant.
I stood on the sidewalk, sweating in the June heat, thinking. There was no reason for Jen to come outside. Not now, not today, not while she was still recovering. But tomorrow – or the day after –
Flies were gathering around the dead bird already. Crawling on its pink skin, sucking liquid out of its eyes, laying eggs. There would be maggots soon. Without thinking, I clapped my hands at the insects. They rose in a wave above the body, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth.
I couldn’t bear the thought of Jen seeing this; I knew I had to move it myself, now. If I couldn’t protect her from loss, at least I could protect her from this.
I shivered in the heat. The thought was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.
There are so many things that could have happened in that moment, so many ways I could act. There is the action that I took, for example, and then there are all the actions I could have taken, that I wish I had taken – a wish so fierce that as time passed it became palpable, visceral, like a memory itself.
This is what I wish had happened:
With slow, methodical movements, I walked to my car. Found a plastic bag. Walked back and picked up the stick. Didn’t think about the Bird family, the broken eggs, the weeks and months of patience and hope. Laid the bag on the ground, open, like a hand. Used the stick to push. Closed my eyes when the flies rose in a protesting cloud. Ignored the scrape of skin against the concrete, the dark patch staining the ground. Didn’t flinch when the wing got stuck on the bag, had to be jostled, then shoved, then tossed in a flopping movement of skin and bone and flies. Held my breath. Tossed the stick into the bag. Tied it. Didn’t think about Jen, or the Fallopian tube she no longer had, or the living bulge inside the tube. Didn’t consider that just yesterday a doctor had gathered up a different body, also tiny, also now dead, also the result of weeks and months of patience and hope, and disposed of it. Didn’t think, didn’t breathe, didn’t look around, walked to the trash and opened the lid and dumped the bag and ignored the flies that slipped inside and put the lid back over the hot dark hollow of the bin and let out a breath and walked away.
Wishing for something doesn’t make it so, of course. Why must some lessons be learned over and over again, before we remember them? I don’t know what happened to the tiny dead bird, the lost child of our robin family. I don’t know, because I wasn’t the one who laid it to rest.
This is what really happened, regardless of what I wish was true:
I shivered in the heat. The thought of Jen seeing the body was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.
I looked at the corpse, already dotted with flies. I looked up at the sky, hazy and blue, and felt the sun wash my face with heat. And then in spite of that clarifying thought, in spite of everything, I walked to my car, and drove away.
When I came back hours later, the body was thick with flies. They rose in a protesting cloud as I passed, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth. By the time I’d opened the front door and disappeared into the cool dark inside, they were feeding again, but I didn’t look around to watch them. I turned away, and left them behind.
They were still there the next morning, and barely moved when I walked past them and got into my car. I shouldn’t know this, because I turned my face away when I walked past, but I remember that there was no movement in the periphery of my vision; the flies knew I wasn’t going to bother them.
Later that morning, Jen went for a walk, slow and careful, with a friend. The baby bird was there when she left, darkening the sidewalk with its cloud of flies. It was still there when she returned from her walk, but when I came home hours later, the body was gone.
We wondered who had moved it. Maybe it was a dog-walker, rescuing the corpse from the jaws of her pet; or maybe it was our neighbors, cleaning up the sidewalk for their upcoming open house. Whoever it was, I like to imagine that they were gentle and careful; that they disturbed it as little as possible as they scooped up the tiny body and threw it away.
All I know for certain is that by the time I got home that evening, the only thing left on the sidewalk was a small, dark stain; and even that disappeared in the next cooling wash of rain.
And this, too, really happened, two or three days later:
Outside, the air blazed with heat. Inside, I stood in the air-conditioned break room at work, staring at the long list of texts on my phone. Picture after picture came flying in from Jen: Birdy and another, much smaller bird standing on the porch; Mr. Bird perched on a telephone wire, watching, a worm dangling from his beak; Birdy and Mr. Bird and two little fluffy feathered babies hopping down the sidewalk towards the park.
The pictures scrolled by quickly, too quickly to believe. I went back to look at them, again and again, but they didn’t change. It had cost them multiple losses and patient effort, and taken three months – an eternity in bird years – but the Bird family had fledged at last.
And one day, I thought, ours would, too.
Author’s Note: Fourteen months to the day from when this story took place, my wife gave birth to our own nestlings. A sweet, calm boy and a feisty little girl sleep peacefully behind me as I write this note. Soon, they’ll wake, and with wide open mouths will call to their parents, demanding and insistent as only the very young can be. I can’t imagine any better ending to this story.
Liz Blocker lives in Boston with her wife and newborn twins. Her essays have been published in The Toast, Role/Reboot, and in the forthcoming issue of The Dallas Review.